A Complete Digital Photography Workflow

digital workflow

For years now when I am teaching workshops or talking with other photographers one of the main topics I rarely hear discussed is a complete workflow. Most folks seem to think of a “workflow” as the processing done to an image after it is shot. And while that is valid I would offer up that a complete digital workflow starts in the camera. One of the things I am always saying to photographers is “how you shoot an image depends on you are going to process that image.” By that I mean, exposure, camera settings, focus, etc. all affect the final image just as much as how you process that image affects the final outcome.

I realize this may sound very simplistic. But this is a solid gold piece of information I am sharing with you about a digital workflow. And this is what sets my Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Workflow e-book apart from pretty much any other workflow I have seen out there. In that e-book I spend the entire first chapter of the book dealing with camera settings and shooting information including white balance, exposure, color settings, etc. It all adds up to the final image. And if you can get it right in the camera you’ll save yourself a lot of time in the image processing phase of your workflow – and you’ll have better final image quality to boot! It took me a few years shooting with digital to fully understand myself the ins and outs of how important this concept is.

So, what am I talking about? Well, lets start off with exposure and shooting jpegs vs. raw. Exposure is a big deal with digital. Let me say that again, setting the correct exposure (for the situation) is a BIG deal with digital photography. Digital has a much tighter exposure tolerance than even slide film had if you want the best possible exposure. If you are shooting jpegs, then you have to nail every setting in camera because after the fact processing will only degrade the image. Sure, an image can be salvaged. Sure, you can always adjust exposure in Lightroom (or any other raw processing software) as well as white balance – even on a jpeg. But here I am talking about going for optimum image quality. Hence with jpegs, the potato is cooked as soon as it comes out of the camera. You need the correct exposure and the correct white balance set in the camera at the time the shutter was snapped for a jpeg to look it’s best.

With shooting raw images we have a little more leeway. Ideally here too you expose the image perfectly and have a custom white balance set in camera before pushing the shutter button. If I am photographing people and want the full range of skin tones the exposure needs to be just as accurate as it would be if we were shooting jpegs. But with raw there are some factors that are different that when shooting jpegs. We can recover up to two stops of highlight detail in Lightroom. This is a huge. When shooting in raw we are working with a 12 bit or 14 bit file – not an 8 bit jpeg file. Hence, we can work on the images a little more extensively without significantly degrading the image quality. We can adjust the white balance without really affecting image quality. And if we want the least amount of noise at high ISOs, underexposing the image is a poor choice. All of this adds up to a different way of shooting than with jpegs. At high ISOs and in general when I am not shooting portraits, I like to overexpose (without blowing out highlights).  In fact with Raw, at any ISO the defacto standard of correct exposure is “expose to the right without blowing out highlights.” By this I mean that your histogram should be as far to the right as possible without any blown out highlights – or at least not any important highlights. If you are shooting jpegs that will just lead to a bunch of overexposed images – not so good.


As an example, check out the image below (as shown in Lightroom) that I shot at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta a few years ago. I was shooting at ISO 400 with a Nikon D2x. At that ISO I wanted to make sure that I had the least amount of noise in the final image so I pushed the histogram to the right (towards the highlights) by overexposing from what the camera told me was the correct exposure. I think it was only plus one-third of a stop overexposed but I can’t remember. Below is the image as it looked when it was imported into Lightroom.

adobe photoshop lightroom

As you can see, the image lacks contrast and is a slightly overexposed. Inside the balloon, it was difficult to set a custom white balance because the light was coming through the balloon so this is one of those rare moments when I put the camera on auto white balance and because I am shooting raw I wasn’t too worried. If you look at the histogram in the first image you’ll notice that there is a space on the left side between pure black and where the histogram starts. This just shows you that I did indeed expose to the right. Looking at the second version of the image (Below), where the image is processed, you’ll notice that the histogram is distributed from edge to edge because I have adjusted the brightness and contrast (and I have added a little saturation boost to make the colors appear as they did to my eye). Hence, while out in the field, I knew I could bring the brightness back down and I also knew that by overexposing a bit the end result would be less noisy in my final image.

adobe photoshop lightroom

Now, I will add a note of caution about skin tones and overexposing while shooting raw. In my experience, the “expose to the right without bowing out highlights” method is not the best way to go for exposing skin tones. Exposing to the right while shooting portraits can in my experience lead to some strange looking skin tones. We have all seen images with the funny orange green hues in the skin tones. When I expose for portraits I concentrate on the face and make sure that no portion of the skin is blown out in any of the red, green or blue channels. This way I can make sure that no matter what I have all the skin detail recorded in the image.

Another big factor – that really helps the final image quality – in both jpeg and raw modes is white balance. In general, I set a custom white balance for just about every frame I shoot. It not only helps speed up my workflow because the white balance is pretty much spot on when I get to the Develop module in Lightroom but I have found that, in the end, it gives me better color overall. I set the white balance in my Nikons using a Lastolite EzyBalance white balance disc. I have had many pro photographers ask me what I was doing when I have set custom white balances using these discs. I am amazed more folks don’t use custom white balance settings in camera because it works so well.

And another hidden bonus of using an EzyBalance white balance disc to set custom white balances is it slows me down and makes me look around. I find with digital more so than with film, that I tend to run out there and just start shooting right away. Taking the time to set a custom white balance, when I have time, really helps me think. And thinking is always a good thing!

Everything affects everything else as they say. And maybe you have noticed or maybe you haven’t – but every time you adjust a slider in Lightroom or any other processing software you are altering the final quality of your image. Don’t believe me – try going into Lightroom and crank the sliders to extremes, then zoom into your image and compare it to the original file. You’ll notice very quickly that if you underexposed your image significantly and botched the white balance you’ll end up with a LOT of noise in your final image that could have been avoided. I learned this by looking at my own images and processing ones that were poorly exposed without custom white balances.

Please don’t think I am on a rant here. I am just trying to pass on some hard earned wisdom. I haven’t even touched on color settings in this blog post – mostly because those are determined more by the end use of the images. There are arguments for and against the use of both the Adobe RGB and sRGB color spaces. That is a whole other ball of wax but certainly, it is part of the equation as well and should be thought through before you start shooting.

Another consideration is noise reduction software. If I know that Adobe Lightroom (or insert your favorite noise reduction software) can effectively reduce noise at certain ISOs and give me quality output at ISO 1600 and even up to ISO 6400 and above then that is very valuable information when I am shooting in low light. And knowing that I should expose right on the mark or even overexpose a little will decrease the amount of noise in an image is also a very good thing to remember – this is just the physics of digital capture.

So, in the end, understanding the back end of your workflow helps to understand how you set up your camera and how you shoot to get the best quality images. And vice versa, while processing, consider how you shot the image to get the best output.

If you are interested in developing a complete workflow of your own using Lightroom, I would recommend checking out my Lightroom Workflow e-book Adobe Photoshop Lightroom: A Professional Photographers Workflow. You can purchase that eBook for the low price of 24.95 on my website.

adobe photoshop lightroom

This e-book presents a complete, digital workflow which includes my in-camera settings, how to determining the optimum white balance and exposure, color management, working with Lightroom and Photoshop, creating web galleries, Noise Ninja and much, much more. A sample table of contents is available for download on my website if you want to see exactly what is covered. The e-books is also up to date and covers the latest versions of Lightroom and Photoshop.

Michael Clark is an internationally published photographer specializing in adventure sports, travel, and landscape photography. He produces intense, raw images of athletes pushing their sports to the limit and has risked life and limb on a variety of assignments to bring back stunning images from remote locations around the world. A sampling of his clients include: Apple, Nikon, Red Bull, National Geographic, Outside and Outdoor Photographer.